CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Mark Twain once said "the clothes make the man." That may be true, but in "Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII," the clothes also make for one beautifully unique combat engine.
In "Lightning Returns," the third release set in the "Final Fantasy XIII" universe that was first explored in 2009, gamers assume the role of Lightning, the heroine from the original "FF13" who has been tasked by God with saving as many souls as possible before the world ends and is reborn in seven days. Set 500 years after the events of "Final Fantasy XIII-2," Lightning encounters plenty of familiar faces along her journey, many that provide satisfying payoffs for fans who have been invested in the series since its beginning.
While the fan service was appreciated, what really hooked me on "Lightning Returns" was its fresh take on the series' combat system. Gone is the venerable three-party system, and in its place are Lightning and her wardrobe.
In "Lightning Returns," players outfit Lightning with up to three different ensembles, known as Schemas. Each Schema has its own skills and stat boosts, and each has its own ATB gauge, which forces players to juggle between the three in order to keep Lightning active during battle. The level of customization offered by these Schematas made it seem as though I was playing with three separate characters, even though it was Lightning all along. I loved acquiring new items and immediately trying to see if I could better an existing Schema or create a new, more powerful outfit that would suit my wants and needs. I maintained one Schema for close-quarters attacks, another for healing and a third loaded with ranged attacks, and I never felt truly overwhelmed during any fight, even the epic boss battles.
"Lightning Returns" also mixes things up by offering an open world to explore, with Lightning not only free to travel about the various locales within Nova Chrysalia, but also free to explore her environment in ways never before seen in a "Final Fantasy" game thanks to some light platforming elements. There's plenty of variety among the places you'll visit, which helped keep things fresh during the 30-plus hours I spent roaming around. In addition to the main quests, there are dozens of side missions that usually involve fetch-questing in one form or another.
While "Lightning Returns" is obviously geared toward those players who have already invested countless hours in the universe, the fresh Schema-based combat system makes it worth a look for newcomers, too. Even those without an eye for fashion.
"Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII"
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Rating: T for teen
Available for: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 ($59.99)